River sutra

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A riveting account of the life and civilisation along the banks of the river Indus down the centuries.

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River,Alice Albinia, John Murray, 2008, p. 366, Rs. 550

My travels up and down the Rhine a few years ago gave me an insight into not only the history of Germany but the economic potential evident in the rise of Germany after the damage caused by the Treaty of Versailles which left her drained of some of her vital resources. A two-day stop at a small village called Rees on the banks of the Rhine gave me a fair idea of German industry, especially from the huge trawlers that carried the powerful German cars. I could not sleep at night because of the noise of the movement of these carriers. But it did make me aware of the power of the river and its place in German development and it’s past. Indeed, the river for me is the adequate conveyance of history and spiritual values. I have had similar experiences on the river Cam and the Cherwell that flow through Cambridge and Oxford.

Alice Albinia’s book is, therefore, interesting because it takes as its central motif the river Indus, a timeless symbol of transition from the past into the present and moving on into the future. It is the story of a river that has its origins in the Tibetan mountains which then finds its way down the north of India into Pakistan. Through it, Albinia constructs a chorus of voices, now individual, now subsumed by a community and its historical and geographical location. Ancient Sanskrit classics like the Rig Veda sing of its virtues as a divine reincarnation. The Indus Valley as a significant location of the birth of Sikhism and the chief site for Sufi pilgrimage further situates it in theological history. As Albinia writes: “…it seemed that everywhere I turned, the Indus was present. Its merchants traded with Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. A Persian emperor mapped it in the sixth century BCE. The Buddha lived beside it during previous incarnations, Greek kings and Afghan sultans waded across it with their armies. The founder of Sikhism was enlightened while bathing in a tributary. And the British invaded it by gunboat, colonised it for one hundred years, and then severed it from India. The Indus was part of Indians’ lives — until 1947.” And though the river separates the two nations, India and Pakistan, it still links the antagonists in their common heritage of memories and myths that the river embodies.

Past and present

The jagged memories of the past stand juxtaposed with the political, military and social development in the Indus basin covering a period from the Greek invasions to the British Raj. The Indus, often termed as “the Unconquered Sindu, the river of rivers” and significant for being the nodal point of Indian Civilization, “is not in India, but in Pakistan, its demonised neighbour.” Interestingly, the very name “India” comes from “Indus” much to the chagrin of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was livid at India “appropriating the past” by choosing to call the new nation India whereas he took the decision of calling the partitioned land Pakistan, “the land of the pure”: “He assumed that his coevals in Delhi would do the same, calling their country by the ancient Sanskrit title, Bharat.”

The account clearly renders details of life on its banks through centuries, recreating with equal vividness a complex of political and economic history associated with the river that runs from India into Pakistan and remains an integral part of the history of both the nations. Parallels between ancient values and modern squalor, between antiquity and contemporaneity sent my mind back to Spencer’s Prothalamion and the worship of the river Thames in all its pristine glory in the Elizabethan period and its decadence in modern times. The damming of the river and its connections with military antagonism has altered lives on its banks of both “the human and non-humans”.

Layered narrative

However, through its simple and clear-headed account, the book shows the eternal values of an age old culture that is epitomised through the persona of the river which provides the narrative and the frame of reference and allows the writer to get on with the task of a historian in elaborating and depicting the story of the Indus civilization. She relies mainly on the narratives of the past myths and of oral history with the sense of a deep-seated freedom to tell her story. Placed against the rich history and patterns of myth, worship and tradition, the book operates between patterns of coherence and fragmentation against which memory and history are measured.

The book therefore has a sustaining power of movement so necessary for any storytelling. It is a profound and insightful picture of life on the Indus, emerging from a time of relative innocence and prosperity to the age of progress and industrialisation. The idea of the book germinates in the writer’s mind in her small flat in New Delhi, and from the highly personal it broadens into a vast panorama of Pakistani and Indian history over five millennia. Albinia picks her way across its landscape searching out the remnants of the past with all the seeds of violence, of barbarism and cultural decay and regeneration. It thus brings back Eliot’s assertion that “historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence”.

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